France will adopt an aggressive new regimen for COVID-19 testing on May 11 so that it can slowly unwind its coronavirus lockdown and avoid an economic meltdown, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on Tuesday.
The government set itself a goal of carrying out at least 700,000 tests per week, he said. Once a person tests positive, tracing would begin to identify, test and isolate all those who had been in close contact with the individual, with the state covering the full cost of testing.
“When we end the lockdown, we will have the capacity to massively scale up testing,” Philippe said in an address to parliament.
France has been carrying out around 200,000 tests a week, far fewer than its neighbour Germany.
Philippe said the lockdown had saved tens of thousands of lives, but the time had come to ease the unprecedented peacetime restrictions and rescue an economy in free-fall.
However, he warned that the infection rate would spiral if France moved too swiftly and people became complacent.
“We are on a knife’s edge. I am having to choose between bad decisions,” he said, shortly before parliament voted in favour of his plans.
France’s Health Ministry said the country’s death toll rose to 23,660 on Tuesday, the world’s fourth highest behind the United States, Italy and Spain.
Still, the number of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in France has fallen daily for two weeks, while the amount of patients in intensive care has declined for 19 consecutive days.
France’s new testing regimen will be implemented as the country starts relaxing lockdown restrictions on May 11. Still, the planned timeline hinges on the number of new coronavirus infections remaining below 3,000 per day, the prime minister said.
“If the indicators are not right, we will not unwind the lockdown on May 11, or we will do it more strictly,” he said.
The number of confirmed new cases dropped below 3,000 on April 15. In the past seven days, the average number of new cases per day has been around 1,500.
Work-at-home still encouraged where possible
The prime minister said if May 11 is workable, non-essential French retailers could reopen their doors on that date, but they they would have the right to insist that shoppers wear masks on the premises.
Philippe said services on the Paris metro would be increased to allow people to commute to work while observing physical distancing, and that restrictions would stay in place for long-distance train travel. Where possible, people should continue working from home beyond May 11, he said.
Gatherings of more than 10 people indoors or outdoors will remain banned and beaches will remain closed to the public at least until June 1.
Philippe promised that enough masks will be available for all citizens from May 11. His government is calling on all companies to provide workers with masks and will help small firms obtain them if needed.
Masks will also be for sale on the post office’s website.
Kindergartens and elementary schools will reopen nationwide on May 11 but on a voluntary basis. From May 18, the government will consider opening middle schools in districts where there are only weak outbreaks of the virus and will decide at the end of May if upper schools can be opened in early June.
Kindergarteners will not be allowed to wear masks to avoid misuse, and the government will make masks available for middle school students who are not able to get them themselves.
Class sizes will be kept to 15 students per class and distance learning will remain free for those students who stay home.
However, some opposition lawmakers and experts questioned the practicality of schools reopening and the broad use of public transport.
Fans of Ligue 1 soccer and other professional sports received some bad, though not entirely unexpected, news from Philippe.
“The 2019-2020 season of professional sports, especially that of football, will not be able to resume,” he said, indicating September was the earliest possible date.
There were about 10 matches left in France’s top soccer table, while its main rugby league was in playoff semifinals.
Philippe’s address was to be followed by a debate and vote in the evening, with just 75 of the National Assembly’s 577 lawmakers sitting in the chamber to respect physical distancing rules.